From September 4-6, leaders and high-level delegates from across Asia, including the two Koreas, convened for the fifth Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) in Vladivostok, Russia. The presence of delegations from both North and South Korea marked the second time officials from both Koreas were at the EEF simultaneously.
While various countries, including India, Japan, and Mongolia sent their top leaders, officials at the vice-premier level represented Pyongyang and Seoul.
The presence of India’s Narendra Modi as the guest of honor was perhaps the most unique aspect of the EEF, yet Korean security also played an outsized role in the goings-on at this year’s event, particularly during sideline discussions.
Several of those in attendance took the opportunity to advance their own agenda for Korean security affairs. During a press conference at the forum, North Korea’s top representative Ri Ryong Nam urged the South to abide by the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration if Seoul hoped to move forward with talks on inter-Korean reconciliation.
And even though the United States is not a participant in the EEF, there were nevertheless opportunities for Moscow and Seoul to discuss their visions for the Korean peninsula vis-à-vis the United States.
Russian deputy foreign minister Igor Morgulov, who also traveled to Vladivostok, declared at the forum that the Kremlin was discussing the 2017 Sino-Russian roadmap for the Korean peninsula with relevant partners, including the United States.
Moscow reached out to South Korea earlier this year, seeking its participation in a cooperative arrangement between China and Russia to advance their shared vision for the future of the Korean peninsula.
At the outset of this year’s EEF, South Korea’s ambassador-at-large for peninsular peace and security, Lee Do-hoon, met with Igor Morgulov in Vladivostok. Lee is reportedly planning a visit to Washington later this month for talks with U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Steve Biegun.
Although the EEF provided a platform for delegates from Moscow, Pyongyang, and Seoul to promote their interests in the security realm, on the economic front developments between the two Koreas and Russia were quite modest.
Russian minister for Far Eastern development Alexander Kozlov met with Ri Ryong Nam and discussed the implementation of agreements made during the summit between Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un in April this year. And Kozlov expressed an upbeat view of the potential for North Korea-Russia cooperation.
Also, Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported that the commodity turnover between the DPRK and the Russian Federation had increased in the first half of 2019 — this, however, comes after trade between the DPRK and Russia declined by more than half in 2018, according to figures from Russia’s state statistical service.
Delegations from the DPRK, the ROK, and Russia were expected to hold a meeting on trilateral economic cooperation. At the top of the agenda were the major projects that have been the staple of talk of three-way collaboration for years – energy infrastructure (including gas pipelines and an electrical grid) and rail infrastructure.
The meeting, however, was abruptly canceled when the North Korean delegation was unable to attend due to alleged scheduling issues.
This year the EEF faced numerous difficulties in fulfilling its function as a venue for advancing economic discussions
Meanwhile, South Korean finance minister Hong Nam-ki proposed the creation of a joint investment fund between the ROK and Russia in part as a way of mitigating the negative effects of the ROK’s trade dispute with Japan.
Nevertheless, the cooling of inter-Korean relations has in part dampened the prospects of closer ROK-Russia economic cooperation, as North Korea is part and parcel of Moscow and Seoul’s shared vision for collaboration.
Aside from the slow pace of rapprochement between Pyongyang and Seoul, a major reason for the stalled development of trilateral cooperation between Moscow, Pyongyang, and Seoul is the continuation of sanctions.
The ongoing standoff between the United States and Russia over the issue of sanctions shows no signs of abating, and the issue reared its head once again during the EEF, albeit not necessarily in Vladivostok.
The Russian Federation took up the presidency of the UN Security Council at the beginning of this month, and Russia’s permanent representative to the UN Vasily Nebenzya has vowed to keep North Korea-related issues on the front burner.
Nebenzya also blasted U.S. unilateral sanctions against Pyongyang, saying that they were imposed “illegitimately.”
This comes at a time when North Korea has ordered a reduction in the number of UN staff operating in the DPRK tasked with managing food aid.
That a large number of innocent people in North Korea are not having their basic nutrition needs met is not in dispute. Unfortunately, however, questions related to the negative humanitarian impact of sanctions have become politicized between Moscow and Washington.
American unilateral sanctions have reportedly exerted a negative effect on the UN’s ability to render humanitarian aid to North Korea. However, this is in conjunction with multilateral UN sanctions against the DPRK, which Russia voted in favor of.
Following Nebenzya’s recent comments on sanctions, one diplomat, speaking on a condition of anonymity, stated that China and Russia were spreading a “false narrative” that sanctions were the culprit for the high levels of undernourishment in North Korea.
Sanctions have also continued to exert an effect on DPRK-Russian economic cooperation concerning the employment of North Korean laborers.
Russia’s ambassador to North Korea Alexander Matsegora insisted in an interview around the time of the EEF that “not one” North Korean laborer would remain in Russia after the December 22 deadline as stipulated by UN Security Council Resolution 2397.
Matsegora stated that the number of DPRK citizens on employment contracts in Russia has gone down and that there are currently less than ten thousand North Korean guest workers in the country.
This year the EEF faced numerous difficulties in fulfilling its function as a venue for advancing economic discussions, at least in relation to the Korean peninsula.
Nevertheless, this year’s EEF did allow the Russian Federation yet another opportunity to serve as a node for multilateral discussions on security-related diplomacy.
Should the gathering of high-level delegates from the DPRK and the ROK in Vladivostok help advance inter-Korean diplomacy, it could be a boon for Russia’s standing in the region with the two Koreas.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Kremlin
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